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In Disney's revamped 'Jungle Book', CGI animals can learn to be human too

Jon Favreau's "Jungle Book" remake melds photo-realistic animals with human expression -- and has just as much heart as the animated original.


We need to think of a word for the mingled sense of excitement and dread we feel on hearing that a beloved childhood TV show or movie is getting the remake treatment. Whatever we call it, I know I felt it big-time when Disney confirmed it was remaking 1967's animated classic "The Jungle Book" with an all-CGI cast of animals.

The excitement was justified. The dread, not so much. Director Jon Favreau's refreshed vision of Rudyard Kipling's Indian jungle captures all the joy of the original, and the beating heart of its gorgeously rendered ecosystem is an animal cast that's nothing short of a phenomenal technical achievement.

Animal magnetism

Favreau's jungle denizens move in a photo-realistic way -- Bagheera lopes from branch to branch with an easy grace that any cat owner will tell you is a perfect facsimile. Scruffy Baloo thuds and rolls his way through the jungle with all the clumsy weight of a real bear. The illusion is nigh-on perfect, but it's when the animals speak that things get much more sophisticated. Their looks and movements are a combination of both animal and human faces, so when Shere Khan bares his fangs with rage, there's something visibly human in the expression.

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Baloo, voiced by Bill Murray. Likes: honey. Dislikes: climbing.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The artistry with which this melding of mammalian mannerisms has been managed is magnificent. Can you picture how a panther would look if it was wordlessly gesturing you to follow it? Disney's animators can, and the result is that the movie's biggest challenge becomes its biggest asset. That craft isn't limited to the film's visuals either -- the voice cast's speech has been interwoven with animal sounds, so when Ben Kingsley (who voices Bagheera) chides Mowgli, there's a growling depth to the sound.

Coming of age

That technical accomplishment means "The Jungle Book" feels alive. The film's creators have smartly opted to have the roles of humans played by humans, avoiding what would almost certainly be a case of uncanny valley. But Mowgli, played to perfection by young Neel Sethi, feels very much a part of things -- crucial for a movie that's about finding your place in the world.

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Neel Sethi is terrific as Mowgli.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Like the original, this film depicts a jungle that's by turns fantastical (that bear just broke into song!) and bitterly harsh (Mowgli's wolf family cannot protect him from the stronger, faster Shere Khan). It's a perfect representation of how the whole world looks when you're a child. At the point where I'm wondering whether Baloo and Bagheera represent rival parenting styles, I may be overanalysing -- but it's to the film's credit that it bears the weight of that kind of discussion.

Can it be a classic?

Though this remake won me over completely, it's a fact that CGI doesn't age as well as 2D animation -- just compare 1999's "The Phantom Menace" to, well, 1967's "The Jungle Book". Because of this, I wonder if Favreau's version can possibly have the longevity that Disney's jazz-fueled original does.

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Looking good, Baggy.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Parents should also be aware that this new "Jungle Book" is darker in tone than the animated version, with Idris Elba's cruel and bullying Shere Khan bringing a genuine sense of threat to a story that also features several jump scares. Narrowing the film's age appeal this way means parents probably won't be playing it for very young children in the decades to come.

Remakes can show us a less inspiring side of the movie business -- one concerned less with art and more with capitalising on your memories, wringing a few dollars out of your nostalgia. That may have been Disney's intention in bringing back Baloo and pals, but when the finished product feels this soul-cleansing, and recaptures that original thrill so effortlessly, I can't help but think that even the slated "Sword in the Stone" remake might not be such a terrible idea.

"Jungle Book" opens Friday in the UK and US. It began showing last week in Australia.

Correction, 9:55 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this article posited that a "Sword in the Stone" remake would be a good idea. This has been updated in light of Disney's planned remake of the 1963 animated film.

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